My turn: Native learning: Where's the success?

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A perspective of learning as observed from an Alaska Native practitioner poses some constructive options to enhance the current status of learning by Alaska Natives.

Since 1885, when Sheldon Jackson brought Western education to Alaska, the mold of learning has remained much as it was in the early days of Western contact with the Alaska Native population.

The directive in 1885 was clear. The educational process was going to happen in the vast territory of Alaska. The educational process was going to be in English.

Several processes were initiated by Jackson: 1) the vast Alaska territory was to be embraced by Western culture, 2) English was to be the guiding language of the process, 3) any language other than English was forbidden, 4) even though the Native language schools of the Russian Orthodox Church were the most successful leaning institutions in the Alaska Territory, those schools quickly went out of existence.

The learning in the classroom is pretty simple. Teachers, administrators and school boards generally know how to handle the educational process. However, what is ignored is the basic knowledge of how an Alaska Native learns. Working through learning styles, the Alaska Native is a "seeing/hearing" learner. This means to become successful in the classroom the Alaska Native learner must get inormation through the eyes and ears. Couple that process with the fact the English language does not translate at all for the Alaska Native. In fact, once the learner becomes a participant in the Western classroom, he or she quickly finds out that language relates little, if not at all, to the cultural patterns of the Alaska Native.

Also understand that the use of time by the Alaska Native learner is very different in the classroom. When asked to respond to a question, the Alaska Native learner will not respond because the learner is processing visually the options or answers. Much like reviewing a video tape, the Alaska Native learner runs the tape of information to the proper response which then can be made orally. This aspect of visual response is often accompanied by the learner closing his or her eyes to block out external cues or looking up toward the ceiling to get to the needed information. What is sorely needed in the learning process is the working knowledge base that time should not be held against the learner. Time must be incorporated into the lesson. The factor of time is one of the detrimental elements that teachers are not permitted to accommodate for the Alaska Native learner. After all, the schedule exists and must be kept.

Plus, this "video learning tape" which is updated, changed and used by the learner for future reference is the only source of information in which questioning can be used. Using the eyes and ears as the primary channel for learning is the lifeline needed for classroom performance and success.

Alaska Native learners, when asked to respond to a question, must be careful not to offer the wrong answer lest the learner embarrass himself or his family.

In Western education, teachers who choose to ignore the specific elements of seeing/hearing learners, only compound the classroom learning. In the light of high dropout rates, the litany of failures can be a substantial list. These simple solutions need to be considered and applied.

Adjust, incorporate and recognize the elements that Alaska Native learners bring to the Western classroom. In the larger setting of educational materials, classroom activities, text books, teacher goals and objectives, work sheets and grading systems are in need of review. After all, when American students are rated along with other countries of the world, we rank about 20th from the top. Apparently, other countries have solved this little-known learning element. See it, hear it. Now, apply it.

• Sasha I. Soboleff is a Juneau resident.



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